Heavy lift: I-5 bridge replacement looms
The I-5 bridge between Portland's Jantzen Beach and downtown Vancouver, Washington, needs to be fixed before it can be replaced.
With maintenance estimated at $1.2 million each year and over $280 million through 2040 (not including seismic retrofit) the replacement won't happen for at least another five years. But starting this year some crucial, traffic-stopping work will be performed.
In Salem, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, politicians are debating how the I-5 bridge replacement might look on a second go-around after the Columbia River Crossing debacle of 2005 to 2014.
That project died because there was no appetite on the Washington side for paying for light rail on the bridge. (Oregon politicians meet Sept. 9 to talk about high-capacity transit (HCT) alternatives.)
Right now, however, the trunnions need replacing in the south tower of the northbound bridge. Trunnions are the steel axles on which the 12-foot diameter sheaves, which look like wheels, rotate, lifting the counterweights with steel cables. One of the trunnions has been cracked since 1999. Many of the new components were made in Alabama and are waiting on a barge next to a crane at the Interstate Bridge. Because the work is above the roadway, traffic has to be moved to the other side of the bridge in case anything accidentally falls.
Part of ODOT and WSDOT's work is handling traffic flow during the lane closure.
Frank Green is a project engineer at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT, pronounced "WASHDOT"), which shares the cost of bridge maintenance with Oregon (ODOT). He explained to the Business Tribune the likely disruption.
"People are going to avoid it at all costs because it will be congested," Green said. They are projecting drivers will try to go to I-84 and I-205 to cross the Columbia River.
"We're trying to get out there and tell people to avoid making the trip if you can, do it at an off-peak time, carpool, take transit if you can, or telework if your employer will let you do that," Green said.
While the work was slated to be done from Sept 12-20, it was postponed due to the wildfire emergency. ODOT wished to keep the bridge at full capacity in case of evacuations. Four ramps on the Vancouver side also will be closed. The northbound bridge will be closed, forcing traffic to share three lanes on the southbound bridge next to it. A machine will move a concrete divider during lunchtime every day so that there are two lanes southbound in the morning for commuters, and two lanes northbound in the afternoon. The work will cause rush-hour delays — up to 16 hours of backups per day and possible four-mile tailbacks "if travel habits do not change," officials warn.
Current traffic volumes in Clark County during peak commute hours are down around 10% compared to summer 2019. At their pandemic lowest in April, they were only 25% down during the morning peak hours, which suggests this a key route that people find hard to avoid. If the work had happened in April when the streets of Portland seemed deserted, there still would have been major backups at the I-5 bridge.
The trunnion repair contractor is in charge of everything from getting the parts made to finding the right bridge paint and the barge for the crane to sit on. The contractor is Hamilton Construction out of Springfield, Oregon (right next to the Marathon Coach company).
Hamilton works with the everyday bridge supervisors, people from ODOT and WSDOT. The cables have to be greased by hand, and someone has to be in the office on the bridge 24/7.
"I do believe there's monetary disincentives for the contractor if it goes longer, because you're impacting the public," Green said. There are also incentives for finishing early. Green said, at this stage, the only thing that could make the work extend past Sept. 20 is force majeure or unseen circumstances, such as extreme weather or an earth movement.
The Interstate Bridge is in two parallel parts. The northbound bridge was built in 1907, the southbound in 1958. Operating and maintaining these aging structures costs around $1.2 million each year, split evenly between ODOT and WSDOT. Larger maintenance projects to keep the Interstate Bridge in service are expected to cost over $280 million through the year 2040, not including seismic retrofit.
The bridge can't survive a big earthquake, and it needs to be wider for more vehicles. (Many in Washington have advocated for a third bridge to Clark County, with more ramps.) The last plan was for a midlevel, fixed-span bridge. That means one high enough to let big ships pass beneath it. Having to stop traffic to lift a span to let ships through, like the current bridge, is known to increase accidents, as many drivers do not expect a red light.
Green at WSDOT, who is officially the assistant program administrator for the interstate bridge replacement program, says new technology should take some of the guesswork out of traffic rates on the new bridge.
"The technology today and the technology five to 10 years from now, is going to be growing at an exponential rate," he said. He's referring to ODOT's active traffic management and the signs saying how long it takes you to get somewhere, based on sensors in the road. Even as the population grows, telecommuting may reduce loads as white-collar workers in Vancouver abandon the five-day commute.
If it is built, the replacement bridge could provide construction jobs for years to come. Previous planning for the Columbia River Crossing estimated it would cost between $2.6 billion and $3.2 billion, and prices have not gone down since 2014. Transit was a huge part of that cost, but so far, they're not starting with light rail as the only option. They might favor bus rapid transit, express buses, with their own lane, instead.
Planners won't know whether the new bridge also will be a midlevel bridge until after the federal environmental review process, which will include the identification and analysis of a range of river crossing alternatives as part of the new Interstate Bridge Replacement efforts.
The general engineering consultant for the project, effectively the prime contractor, is WSP, a U.S. firm with 500 offices worldwide. This is intended to get the project through the planning phase and potentially overlap with construction. The main work will go out for a separate contract later. WSP now is selecting the subcontractors in fields such as technical analysis for the traffic modeling, bridge design, communications and outreach.
In July 2020, WSP engineer Greg Johnson became the consultant team's program administrator. Johnson is a WSP engineer who came from Battle Creek, Michigan, and is familiar with large civil projects.
"This project is of national importance," Johnson said. "The old days of the DOTs coming in to communities and saying 'Were going to do this to you' are long gone."
Washington's giant 2019-21 transportation budget (ESHB 1160) included $35 million, and the Oregon Transportation Commission approved allocating $13 million, just to get the planning going. There are no designs yet, not even sketches.
With $48 million to play with, eight members from each state Legislature has been meeting to provide some guidance and oversight for the program. Both states have shown that this is a priority.
The next big phase of community outreach: asking people how much they will use the bridge and how they feel about expanded ramps in their neighborhoods. After analyzing all that data, the team will shift into the design phase.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
The bistate Interstate Bridge Replacementoffice is looking into what can be reused from the last effort, which came to nothing in 2014. That project got as far as drilling deep holes to test the soil and bedrock. Green says certainly the geotechnical work can be saved, since there have been no major land movements since then.
Between now and the end of 2020, the team will be working on developing vision and value statement for the program, a comprehensive community engagement plan and the conceptual finance plan.
Green added: "There were a lot of a lot of design elements that people were really concerned about last time. Those are some issues that we're going to have to engage the community on, and local partners that are obviously directly impacted, like the city and the ports (of Portland and Vancouver)."
Green says they have learned by watching the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in California and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge between Maryland and Virginia.
The team will report to both governors Dec. 1.
Before construction, WSDOT and ODOT will need to:
• Complete the federal environmental review process
• Obtain necessary state and federal permits
• Finalize project design
• Develop a finance plan
• Secure adequate funding
• Complete right-of-way acquisition
• Advertise for construction
There are eight other bistate partner agencies in the leadership team: TriMet, C-TRAN, Oregon Metro, the Southwest Regional Transportation Council, the cities of Portland and Vancouver, and the ports of Portland and Vancouver.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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